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Online help is topic-oriented, procedural or reference information delivered through computer software. It is a form of user assistance. The purpose of most online help is to assist in using a software application, web application or operating system. However, it can also present information on a broad range of subjects. Online help linked to the application's state (what the user is doing) is called Context-sensitive help.
Online help has largely replaced live customer support. Before its availability, support could only be given through printed documentation, postal mail, or telephone (which is expensive).
Customers may find when troubleshooting their own problems, they can get to a solution by themselves, saving time and money. More companies can afford this kind of help system, allowing them to compete with the larger companies more effectively.
Online help is created using help authoring tools or component content management systems. It is delivered in a wide variety of formats, some proprietary and some open-standard, including:
- Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which includes HTML Help, HTML-based Help, JavaHelp, and Oracle Help
- Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF)
Online help is also provided via live chat systems, one step removed from telephone calls. This allows the support person to conduct several support sessions simultaneously, thus reducing costs. The transcript is immediately available and can be sent to the customer after the session ends.
The chat feature also reduces the intense negativity that can be directed at customer support personnel, requiring the customer to calm down and articulate their thoughts more clearly.
DITA and DocBook
The Open Source tool DocBook XSL can also generate help files and is a resource for single source publishing. From one source, DocBook can generate PDF, JavaHelp, WebHelp, eBook and many more formats (even .chm files if required). The same with DITA, which is even favored for that purpose.
Microsoft help platforms
Microsoft develops the platforms for delivering help systems in the Microsoft Windows operating system.
|Platform name||Description||Public?[clarification needed]|
|Microsoft QuickHelp||Ralph Walden joined Microsoft in 1987 and wrote an online help system for MS-DOS and OS/2 called QuickHelp. Ralph was also primarily responsible for it.|
|Microsoft WinHelp (.hlp)||Based on the Rich Text Format, this was the industry standard for Windows 3.1 and Windows 95/NT. The popular Windows Help program (WinHlp32.exe) was included with all Windows operating systems from Windows 3.0 until the Windows XP operating system. However, the help engine is not included with Windows Vista and is only available as a download.||Yes|
|Help and Support Center||A deprecated online help system in Windows Me and Windows XP.|
|Microsoft Help 2 (.hxs)||In 2001, Microsoft announced plans for a wide release of HTML Help 2.0, which came to be called Microsoft Help 2. This platform was developed by Microsoft and shipped in 2002 as the help format for Visual Studio .NET, MSDN Library and TechNet products, but Microsoft announced it had cancelled plans to make the format publicly available. Microsoft Help 2 was also used as the help format in Office 2007.|
|AP Help 1.0 (.h1s)||Assistance Platform Help is based on Microsoft Assistance Markup Language. It is the format developed for and shipped with Windows Vista. It will not be made publicly available as an authoring platform for other software vendors, but will be used by Microsoft, OEMs, and certain corporate users. Version 2.0 of the Assistance Platform Help engine is currently on hold.|
|HelpConsole (local HTML files or web-based)||IIS based system, with a standard navigation tree and content area, viewable with a web browser, supports JS, Flash (now deprecated), HTML5, Embedded presentations etc., Since it is web-based, it works on Windows, Linux, and virtually all other Operating Systems.|
|AmigaGuide (.guide)||The official hypertext document file format designed for the Amiga.|
|Apple Help (.HELP)||Apple Computer's proprietary help platform for the Mac OS 8.5+ operating system.|
|WebHelp||A cross-platform, uncompiled Help system that can run on most browsers and on most platforms, including Windows, UNIX, Linux, Sun Solaris, and Macintosh.|
|Sun JavaHelp (.js)||A platform-independent help system written in Java programming language by Sun Microsystems. It runs on almost any platform and browser that supports the Java Runtime Environment (JRE).|
|Oracle Help||Two formats developed by the Oracle Corporation: Oracle Help for Java (OHJ) and Oracle Help for Web (OHW).|
|Help library (.HLB)||The official help file format designed for VMS.|
|DotNetHelp||A new Windows help format, as an alternative to the .chm format, that also supports .NET applications.|
|Texinfo (also known as the "info")||The official documentation system for the GNU project.|
|Unix man pages||The standard method used to document (among others) Unix programs and shell commands, System and Library calls, Special files and File formats .|
|Information Presentation Facility (IPF)||The help system used by IBM's OS/2 system, eComStation and ArcaOS. It is the official documentation system for the fpGUI Toolkit project.|
- Balloon help
- Darwin Information Typing Architecture
- Frequently Asked Questions
- List of help authoring tools
- Microsoft Assistance Markup Language (Microsoft AML)
- Web help
- help desk
- ^ The Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 Developer Story: Application Compatibility Cookbook § "Help Engine Support"
- ^ Oracle Help Technologies
- ^ "ArcaOS IPF Help". Retrieved 2020-08-24.